Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Nurse Mabel Butler and The South Eastern Fever Hospital

Ambulance at The South Eastern Hospital, 1906

Ambulance at The South Eastern Hospital, 1906

In the year that Queen Victoria died, 1901, my great grandmother, Mabel Butler, was 25 and unmarried. According to the census that was carried out that year she was a hospital nurse at The South Eastern Hospital, Avonlea Road, Deptford, London SE. However, the census does not specifically say that Mabel was employed at the hospital. In fact, it says that she was an inpatient at the hospital, but that her occupation was “hospital nurse.”

Many questions come to mind. Was The South Eastern Hospital her workplace? Did she also live there? Or was she a nurse at another hospital but for some reason admitted to The South Eastern Hospital as a patient? The last record of Mabel before 1901 was from the 1891 census 10 years earlier when she lived with her sister Sarah May in Bristol, and worked as Sarah’s assistant in a draper’s business. In the intervening years she had “left home” and become a qualified nurse. Why did she decide on this particular profession? How did she come to be living and working in London, after a childhood and early adulthood in Bristol? What was involved in becoming a qualified nurse at the turn of the century? What illness had Mabel contracted that resulted in her admission to hospital as a patient?

The most likely answer to the first of these questions is that she was indeed a nurse at The South Eastern Hospital, and that she did indeed live there. Nurses at that time were generally young single women who when they married left their job to take care of their husbands and families. They usually lived on site at the hospital in which they worked. A Nurses Home was built at The South Eastern Hospital in 1893, and Mabel presumably lived there. If she was sick enough to be admitted to hospital then it would be natural that it would be the hospital where she worked and lived.

As far as the other questions are concerned I can only guess at answers. Mabel decided to become a nurse at some stage between the ages of 15 and 25. Nursing as a profession was in its infancy in the late Victorian era: Florence Nightingale had founded her training school for nurses at St Thomas’s Hospital in London in 1860, the first secular nursing school in the world. Florence Nightingale herself was 81 at the time of the 1901 census. It is possible, I suppose, that Mabel trained as a nurse in that very school, if she trained at all. There were few to choose from then. Why she chose nursing I don’t know. I also don’t know when she stopped working as a nurse, but it was at some stage between 1901 and 1905 when her first son, my grandfather, was born.

The South Eastern Hospital, or Deptford Hospital as it was also known, was one of a group of hospitals constructed in a ring around London in the latter half of the 1800s. They were known as “fever hospitals” because they were largely for the treatment of infectious disease. Smallpox was a major health problem in London in the 1800s, but by the end of the nineteenth century smallpox cases were mostly being cared for on old ship hulks in the Thames. The hospitals were reserved for other infections, particularly typhus and scarlet fever. It is not unlikely that Mabel had contracted one of these “fevers” and that on census day, 1901 she was unluckily in bed.

According to the website, Lost Hospitals of London, “in 1901 an architect was appointed to prepare a scheme for permanent buildings on the very restricted site. The plan included the erection of staff quarters, receiving rooms, isolation wards and 4 new 2-storey pavilions at an estimated cost of £76,000. The Hospital closed in 1904. The 70 members of staff were laid off with a month’s notice, and only the Medical Superintendent, Matron and Steward retained. Building work began and was completed in two years. The Hospital reopened in July 1906 with 496 beds.”

But by 1906 Mabel was living in Heston, Middlesex, with her husband George Simmonds and her son of the same name, my grandfather. At the time of George’s birth in August 1905, Mabel was in fact living in Redhill, Surrey. Her occupation is listed on George’s birth certificate as “laundress of Merstham.” It is possible that she was one of the 70 members of staff who were laid off in 1904, but for some reason she chose to take a position as a laundress in Merstham rather than finding work somewhere else as a nurse.

Why did she move south to Redhill? Was it because she had met her future husband George Simmonds, and that he came from Surrey? How did they meet, and where? And was he called George Simmonds when she met him or George Lilley? When they finally married officially in 1916 George recorded his status as “widower.” Was he already a widower when they met, or was he still married? George was a few years older than Mabel, and the research I have done to date has led me to believe that in 1901 he was married to a girl called Rosetta and that they lived in Reigate, Surrey, under the name George and Rosetta Lilley. What happened to Rosetta? Of course it is a guess, but I have even wondered if perhaps Rosetta died of a “fever” in The South Eastern Hospital in Deptford.


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